A KINGDOM DIVIDED AGAINST ITSELF
 THE coming of Quetzalcoatl, so longed for by the people, was awaited by their emperor Montezuma with
dread unspeakable. The very thought of losing rank and power, though to a god, made the days of the
mighty monarch a nightmare, and the courtiers whispered as they watched his sombre face—"He is
well named Montezuma, the man of gloom." By ceaseless sacrifice he strove to propitiate the gods and
to avert his doom, but portent after portent seemed to presage coming evil.
On a calm and windless day the great salt lake encircling Tenochtitlan was troubled, and its waters
raging in wild unrest o'er wall and causeway swept down the very streets of the city, while the
emperor trembled in his palace. On one of the towers of the great teocalli descended a
ball of fire which no man could extinguish until the turret crashed in ruin. At night a comet
streamed across the sky and Montezuma grew sick with foreboding fear. Most terrible portent of all,
there appeared in the east on several nights in succession "a flood of fire thickly powdered with
stars." And while this baleful light
 spread over the eastern sky, staining blood-red the white summits of the two great volcanoes, a
sound of wild and unearthly wailing filled the air. Fateful omen! From the east would the Fair God
Almost distraught, Montezuma sent for counsel to Nezahualpilli, the learned king of Tezcuco, who was
steeped in the lore of astrology. To the imperial palace in Tenochtitlan came the grey-bearded
monarch, the son for whom the great Nezahualcayotl had fasted. Gloomy was his face, and his
prophetic words but added to the emperor's despair.
"So sure am I that the days of our empire are numbered," he said, "that I will play you at dice for
my kingdom of Tezcuco. You shall stake three fighting cocks, and I will set against them my realm
itself. If you win, all shall be well with the land of Anahuac, but if I win the glory of our race
shall vanish like snow before the coming of the children of the Sun." So the two kings played this
fateful match and Nezahualpilli won the cocks.
"We have played against destiny and we have lost!" cried the sage. "Would that you had won my
kingdom! Swiftly now will come the day of doom!" So saying he arose and returned across the lake to
his city of Tezcuco. Soon came word to Montezuma that the astrologer-king, brooding o'er the
downfall of his race, was dead.
Two sons, Cacama and Ixtlilxochitl, disputed the succession, and for a time Tezcuco was torn with
civil strife, until the strong hand of the Aztec emperor placed Cacama on the throne. But the
younger son, henceforth Montezuma's deadly foe,
 still ruled in the hill-fastnesses of the northern part of the kingdom.
Many months passed by in suspense. The solemn words of Nezahualpilli grew fainter, and hope even
began to creep into the emperor's heart. Then came like a thunderbolt the news of Grijalva's
landing. But the time was not yet, and Grijalva sailed away. Had the gods heard his prayers,
accepted his sacrifices?
Alas! who can escape his fate? Once more the dreaded strangers seek his shores, bringing in their
train thunder and lightning and fierce, fiery animals for war. In the pictured scroll he gazes on
these white-skinned metal-clad men, and from the trembling tongue of his fleet courier he hears the
bold words of their chief. They wish to march to his very citadel, they demand an audience, to no
subordinate will they commit the message of their own all-powerful lord. Montezuma is perplexed. Who
is this lord, this monarch so mighty? Quetzalcoatl? The Aztec hesitates. He temporises.
Eight days did CortÚs await the answer to his message in his camp on the sandy shore. This was the
tierra caliente, the hot region of Mexico, and all day long the sun beat mercilessly down on
the palpitating, breathless land. Hard by was a fever-haunted marsh, and several of the Spaniards
fell sick with malaria. Tormented by myriads of tropical insects they would have found the place
insupportable but for the kindness and attention of the natives, who lavished on the strangers
cooling fruits and food of all kinds. Some of them, indeed, by Tendile's
 command, built booths of branches near the Spanish camp, and passed their time in cooking tempting
dishes for CortÚs and his officers.
On the eighth day appeared Tendile himself with two stately Aztec nobles and a numerous train of
attendants. A hundred slaves bore the multitude of gifts sent by their imperial master. To the
general's large tent they made their way, and the slaves waving their censers filled the air with
incense, while the nobles did reverence in Aztec fashion. Then on brightly coloured mats before the
Spaniards' dazzled eyes they spread glittering shields, embossed helmets, collars, bracelets,
sandals, all of purest gold; crests and head-dresses of gorgeous feathers wrought with gold and
silver thread and adorned with precious stones; curtains, coverlets, and robes of finest cotton
interwoven with the soft fur of rabbits, dyed in rich colours and embroidered with devices of birds
Cunningly fashioned were the ornaments in wrought and cast gold and silver, representing birds and
beasts with jewelled eyes and movable wings and limbs. Most beautiful, perhaps, of all these truly
royal gifts were the mantles of that exquisite feather work peculiar to the Mexican people. From the
plumage of countless parrots, whose haunt was in the forests, came the bold and brilliant shades,
while the humming-birds who lived in the honeysuckle bowers of Mexico supplied the softer and more
delicate tones. True artists were the feather-workers, and held in high esteem.
A silver moon, a golden sun, the size of a carriage
 wheel, and elaborately carved with plants and animals, inflamed the cupidity of the Spaniards, who
valued this alone at twenty thousand pesos de oro (about ú50,000). Last of all was offered to CortÚs
the Spanish helmet filled to the brim with grains of gold.
With courtly formality the ambassadors then delivered the message of their master. "Montezuma
rejoices," they said, "in the arrival of such brave men in his country, and is pleased to hold this
communication with their powerful king, for whom he feels the deepest respect. He regrets much that
owing to the distance of his capital he cannot receive the strangers at his court, but the journey
is beset with so many difficulties that they must not dream of attempting it. It is the emperor's
wish, therefore, that they should return at once to their own land bearing his gifts to their master
as proofs of friendship."
This reply, so courteous yet so unwelcome, called for all the diplomacy of CortÚs, who dissembled
his disappointment in effusive thanks for Montezuma's munificence. "It makes me," he declared, "but
the more anxious to see and speak with your gracious monarch in person. It will be indeed impossible
for me to present myself before my own sovereign without having accomplished this great object of my
voyage. One who has sailed over two thousand leagues of ocean holds lightly the perils and fatigues
of so short a journey by land."
The ambassadors promised to convey this message, but held out no hopes of a favourable answer, and
it was with some reluctance that they accepted for their
 master a handsome Venetian glass cup, some Holland shirts, and a few worthless trinkets.
All thoughts of discipline were lost as the adventurers crowded to the general's tent to gaze on the
treasure which they had seen borne through the camp by the long train of Aztec slaves. Roused to a
frenzy of greed and daring the bolder spirits cried, "Let us strike inland at once and seize this
treasure-house!" With others caution prevailed. "How civilised, how powerful must be this rich
empire whose subjects are so skilled," they said soberly; "it will be madness to attempt the
conquest with our small force. Let us return and report what we have seen to Velasquez."
Difficulties now gathered round the general, dissensions broke out among his followers, and the
secret friends of Velasquez began to show their hand. CortÚs had never intended to be a cat's-paw
for the Governor of Cuba, nor even to share with him the rewards of this expedition. He realised
that until he was independent he could not really cope with the situation, so he determined to found
a crown colony and cause himself to be elected commandant, answerable to the king of Spain alone.
After ten days the Aztec envoys returned with more gifts, but curter and briefer was their message.
Montezuma forbade the strangers to advance farther, and requested them to leave his shores without
delay. "This is a rich and powerful prince indeed," said CortÚs to his officers, "yet it shall go
hard, but we will one day pay him a visit in his capital! "At this moment the vesper bell rang out
and the Spanish
 soldiers flung themselves on the sands before the great wooden cross in the centre of the camp, and
offered their evening prayer, while the envoys looked on curiously. Father Olmedo then strove
earnestly to expound to them the Christian faith. They listened with cold but courteous
indifference, and with a few words of haughty command to the Aztecs whom Tendile had ordered to
attend on the Spaniards, they left the camp.
That very night the supply of provisions suddenly ceased, and all the natives silently disappeared
from the neighbourhood. The Spaniards were left without food on the scorching sands, and the ravages
of fever added fuel to their smouldering discontent. Resolving to move his camp, CortÚs sent two
ships to explore the coast northwards, and find if possible a safer harbour and a healthier
situation. But each day the soldiery clamoured still more insistently, "Let us return to Cuba before
we bring the force of the whole Mexican empire on our heads!"
At this juncture fortune came to the general's aid. Five Indians appeared one morning in the camp.
In dress and appearance they seemed to differ from the Aztecs. They lacked the striking dignity of
manner, and were decorated in more barbarous fashion. To their under-lips were fastened golden
leaves, and rings of gold with bright blue stones hung from their split nostrils and ears. Marina
could not at first understand their language, but she soon found that two of them could speak the
Aztec tongue. They belonged to the ancient tribe of the Totonacs who had dwelt in freedom for many
centuries on the
 eastern slopes of the plateau of Anahuac. They had been conquered, however, by the armies of
Montezuma, and very bitter did they find their bondage. Their cacique had heard of the
wonderful white men, and petitioned for their aid to throw off the yoke of his oppressors. He
invited the Spaniards to visit him in Cempoalla, his chief city, which lay to the north along the
coast near to the spot where CortÚs had decided to pitch his new camp.
Lavishing every attention and honour on the five Totonacs, the Spanish general pondered over their
proposal with thankful heart. This Mexican empire, then, outwardly so strong and united, had enemies
already within its gates! His keen eye saw here an invaluable aid to the foreign conqueror.
Promising the Totonacs that he would visit Cempoalla, he gave orders to break up the encampment and
prepare for the march northward. This command enraged still more the discontented soldiers, who,
going in a body to CortÚs, called him a traitor and demanded to be taken home. To their surprise the
general at once consented, and ordered the whole army to be in readiness to embark the following
And now in fury rushed to the general's tent all those bold spirits who wished to be led to Mexico.
"Are we to be dragged back now?" they cried, "when we stand on the threshold of a golden empire!"
All night the uproar continued, until the ardour of the bold so infected the waverers that by the
next morning an almost complete revulsion of feeling had taken place. When it came to the point
hardly a man wished to renounce the treasure so nearly within his
 grasp, and unanimously they besought the general to go forward. With well-simulated reluctance
CortÚs gave way. "Since you so much wish it," he said, "I will found a settlement in this new
country for the glory of the Spanish name. But no unwilling soldier shall aid me. Whoever wishes may
return to Cuba!" With ringing cheers the army prepared for its onward march.
Ever ready to strike while the iron was hot, CortÚs proposed to elect at once the civil magistrates
for the projected colony, which was to receive the name of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. Two
alcaldes were appointed,—one a personal friend of the general, the other an
adherent of Velasquez. Then followed the elections to the minor offices. When all was settled
CortÚs, cap in hand, presented himself before this new municipal council and resigned the office
which he had received from Velasquez. Not a word was spoken until their former leader had retired,
then with one consent the councillors, in the name of his Catholic Majesty of Spain, re-elected him
as Captain-General, with the added honour and title of Chief Justice to the colony.
The ships with the heavy guns on board were to follow the coast until they came to the chosen
harbour. The army, leaving with joy the mosquito-infested marsh lands, struck out through more
fertile country. Grassy plains broken by clumps of cocoa groves and palm forests rejoiced their
hearts. Beneath the trees the deer were grazing and startled pheasants rose at their very feet. Here
they saw for the first time the turkey, a native of Mexico, and hitherto
 unknown to Europeans. Twelve Totonacs met them to act as guides through the jungle, where rioted the
prickly aloe, and where gorgeous tropical creepers and dark purple vines clothed the trunk of every
tree. Roses, honeysuckle, and flowers of every hue vied with the colours of the brilliant birds and
butterflies. Few were the songsters, but the scarlet cardinal sang sweetly as a nightingale, and the
strange mocking-bird roused the echoes of the forest.
Amidst all this varied beauty stood a temple and on its altar the mangled corpse of a human being.
Shuddering, the Christians turned away, vowing to purge the land of its savage blood-stained
Next morning as they drew near Cempoalla, they were met by crowds of people in holiday attire, who
flung on them garlands of flowers, and decked the horses with chaplets of roses. Women in gay cotton
robes mingled freely in the throng.
Entering the city the Spaniards were struck with the appearance of the houses, which were well built
and plastered with stucco. They were led at once to the palace, where they were received by the lord
of Cempoalla, whom Bernal Diaz distinguishes as "the fat cacique." Quarters were
provided for the whole army in the wide courtyard of the chief temple, and the general gave strict
orders that no annoyance was to be offered to the natives.
On the morrow CortÚs, with Marina and one of his officers, visited the palace, where the
cacique gave him much information as to the condition of Anahuac. "The great
Montezuma," he said, "dwells in a strong city in the midst of a lake far off among the mountains.
 He is a stern prince, and merciless in his exactions. If we dare to resist him, his armies pour down
from the mountains of the west, and, rushing over the plains like a whirlwind, sweep off our young
men and maidens to slavery and sacrifice."
"Do not fear," replied CortÚs, "if you will be true to me I will enable you to throw off the yoke of
Montezuma. A single Spaniard is stronger than a host of Aztecs."
The chief then told him of other conquered tribes equally discontented, and also of the republic of
Tlascala, independent and irreconcilable.
Bidding farewell to his new friends, CortÚs marshalled his men to march on to the coast, where they
were to meet the ships and build their settlement. Visions of conquest danced before his kindling
eyes. Alone he had not feared to face the Aztecs; with native allies he felt that victory would be
sure and speedy.
Passing through another Totonac city, the Spaniards were kindly received by the people. While they
were conversing amicably with the leading men of the place a message was brought to the
cacique, who at once withdrew from the Spaniards in constrained silence.
At this moment five richly dressed strangers entered the market-place, and passed by the adventurers
with haughty disdain. "Their hair was shining," says Bernal Diaz, "and, as it were, tied on the top
of the head, and each of them had in his hand a bunch of roses which he occasionally smelt." They
were Mexican collectors of tribute,
 and were hurriedly joined by the notables of the place, to whom they administered a severe reprimand
for entertaining the Spaniards. In expiation they demanded young men and women to sacrifice to the
The indignation of CortÚs knew no bounds. He urged the Totonacs to seize and imprison the imperial
tax-gatherers, pledging his word to support them in their rebellion. After some persuasion this was
Having thus embroiled the Totonacs with Montezuma, he determined to reap all possible advantage from
the occurrence, and that night secretly set free two of the prisoners to carry a message to their
emperor, saying that the Spaniards were still his friends.
No course was now open to the rebellious tribe but to throw in their lot with the white men, and the
caciques of all the Totonac cities came at CortÚs' summons to swear allegiance to the
king of Spain.
This strong alliance gave the invaders confidence to establish their settlement. "For the site of
our town," says Bernal Diaz, "we chose a plain half a league from the fortress where we now were;
and tracing out the foundations of the church, square, arsenal, and fort, we raised all the
buildings to the first story, and also the walls and parapets with loopholes and barbicans. CortÚs
was the first to carry earth or stones or dig in the foundations. His example was followed by all
the officers and soldiers, some digging and others making the walls of clay, bringing water, and at
the kilns making
 bricks and tiles; others seeking provisions or timber, and the smiths preparing the iron-work. In
this manner we continued until, with the assistance of the natives, we had nearly completed the
church, houses, and fortresses."
While this work was in progress an embassy arrived from Montezuma, who had heard of the insult
offered to the tax-collectors and also of their rescue. He sent thanks and a costly gift to the
Spaniards, informing them of his conviction that they were the Teules or god-like beings so long
announced by the oracles. He would spare the Totonacs while the strangers were in their midst, but
the time for vengeance would come. "How formidable must these Teules be," thought the people of the
country, "whom even the great Montezuma fears!"
To bind the Spaniards to them in close alliance the Totonacs proposed intermarriage, and offered to
them seven noble maidens attended by slaves. Father Olmedo saw here an opportunity; the Church, he
said, could not sanction such a union unless the Totonacs gave up their hideous worship and accepted
Christianity. Indignantly the natives refused. Then cried CortÚs to his men, "Though it cost the
lives of all, this very hour their false gods shall be demolished!" At the word the soldiers rushed
to the chief temple. The cacique immediately summoned his warriors to arms, while the
dark-robed priests, their flowing hair matted with blood, roused the whole city to frenzy. CortÚs at
once seized both cacique and priests, and commanded them to pacify the people. "If a
 blow is struck," he exclaimed, "the whole town shall perish!" "Hiding his face the cacique cried,
"The gods will avenge their own wrongs!"
The idols were then flung from the temple and burnt by the zealous Christians, the walls of the
chamber of sacrifice were purged and covered with stucco, while in the place of the sacrificial
stone an altar was built and dedicated to the Virgin. Seeing that the gods made no resistance, the
Totonacs were quite willing to embrace the new faith. Exchanging their dark robes for white, even
the heathen priests, with candles in their hands, marched in solemn procession behind an image of
the Virgin Mary covered with flowers.
This holy work accomplished, the Spaniards with much complaisance returned to their own city, the
Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.
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